Unlike a lot of the books I talk about here, I did not grow up loving the Graceling Realm series. I didn’t read the first book until I was in college, when I picked it up from the library on a whim, and I didn’t get around to reading one of the three books until this year. But they made an impression on me. A fairly typical YA fantasy series in some ways, the Graceling books distinguished themselves (to me, at least) with a willingness to engage with surprisingly dark, upsetting topics in a nuanced and complex manner. Emblematic of that approach is a theme that I noticed winding through all three books of the trilogy, that of people grappling with a legacy of evil. I use that term very precisely, because the issue is not necessarily one of redemption per se. Each book centers on a girl who is the heir to a legacy of terrible evil, and then focuses on how they attempt to overcome it, both in terms of its affect on the wider world and on their lives.
Star Wars, taking the entire canon as a fully-integrated story, chronicles the decline and collapse of Galactic Civilization into an entropic spiral of chaos, bloodshed, and civilizational disintegration that will inevitably lead to an era of warlordism and barbarism in the absence of governance and civil order, a Long Night that will likely last centuries or even millennia before the rise of a new Galactic Republic. No, really. It does! I am a fierce apologist for the Old Star Wars Expanded Universe (or at least aspects of it), but something that fascinates me about it is the way in which the demands of continuous storytelling have a warping affect on the original Universe. The need to continuously produce new content with the same cast of original characters ensured that no victory could be final, no status quo remain stable. The accidental result is a corpus of work that, rather than telling the story of Good Triumphing Over Evil, as the Original Trilogy does, tells the tale of Galactic Civilization beginning it’s long tailspin into disintegration over the course of seventy years.
As anyone who’s read my blog before can probably tell, I’m a big fan of Science Fiction as a genre. I read a lot of SciFi, I watch a lot of SciFi–it’s a very large portion of my cultural consumption. And unsurprisingly, I have a lot of thoughts about it. Now, plenty of people have written before about the ways in which science fiction can serve as a form of cultural lens or critique, using visions of the future as a way of commenting on the present, or the ways in which SciFi can be prescient, predicting future developments in technology and their societal implications. I’m not going to talk about any of that important stuff. Today, I want to air some of my musing about the concrete implications of common worldbuilding decisions in a lot of SciFi universes and stories. Of course, the term “Science Fiction” can encompass a vast vareity of different genres, but here we’ll focus Space Opera and Military Science Fiction, two areas of particular interest to me.
I want to look at some of the practical decisions that have to be made while designing these worlds, and the broader implications they have on the stories set in them, specifically in how they approach distance, scale, and size. Questions like “how do people get from place to place” and “how large is our universe” are rarely the center of SciFi stories, but how the author answers them can inform so much else.
Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, is one of the most influential books ever written. In the decades since it’s publication, it has become a cultural powerhouse, inspiring blockbuster movies, video games, toy lines, and helping to give birth to the enduringly popular epic fantasy genre. Despite it’s venerability, however, Lord of the Rings holds up. Even now, when many of it’s knockoffs and imitators can seem portentous and dreary, Tolkien’s masterpiece retains a freshness, a clarity, that distinguishes it from the many, many other works of fantasy that have followed in it’s footsteps. Why is this? Part of the answer is, of course, that Tolkien was a genuinely great writer, but I think it’s worth examining Lord of theRings‘s rather unique relationship to and treatment of Lore. “Lore”, used here to refer to the backstory, mythology, world-building, and background details, is an integral part of epic fantasy. It’s one of the things that the genre is best known for (or most notorious for, depending on your perspective), and Lord of the Rings is the quintessential example of this. After all, Tolkien spent literally most of his life working on the lore and mythic backstory to his novels. His son, Christopher Tolkien, spent most of his life publishing and editing it. That massive compendium of Lore is one of the key distinguishing features of the book. And yet!
One of the fascinating things about Lord of the Rings is that when you’re reading it, it’s very clear that there’s a huge mythic corpus that underlies the story but most of it is never actually explained. There is surprisingly little exposition! If you read it after having read The Silmarillion, you’ll notice dozens of references and allusions to events and characters from the history of Middle-Earth. But these are rarely unpacked for the benefit of the audience or, most importantly, particularly relevant to the plot. It’s a violation of the rule of Chekov’s Gun, on a truly massive scale. But it works.
10. King Haggard (The Last Unicorn): A villain not motivated by greed, fear, hatred, or power-lust, but simply boredom. He’s tried being a tyrant, and grew tried of that. He’s tried ruling an empire, and he lost interest. He found a son, but soon lost interest in him. He’s tried everything, but nothing makes him happy anymore except his stolen collection of unicorns. (It’s complicated, ok? Read the book). And he “will keep nothing near me that does not make me happy”. I have always loved this book, and King Haggard is a big part of that. He’s this pathetic figure, ruling over a decaying castle in a dying land, without any reason to carry on living, still trying to rob the world of something beautiful out of pure spite, but the book still manages to imbue him with a genuine menace, despite the fact that he should just be a crazy old man. Haggard genuinely believes that nothing he isn’t interested in really exists, the world literally revolves around him. He’s the embodiment of entropy, or perhaps nihilism, the ultimate solipsist. He seems to float through the book on a different plane of existence from everyone else, operating according to his laws of physics. It’s such a great approach to villainy. Also, Christopher Lee voiced him in the movie, so yeah. Amazing. (Source)
Over the last few years, I’ve read three alternate history books about a world in which the Muslim community or an Islamic country is the predominant cultural and political global superpower. Empire of Lies by Raymond Khoury, The Mirage by Matt Ruff, and Through Darkest Europe by Harry Turtledove. The United States has been locked in a perpetual war throughout the Muslim world for most of the last thirty years, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that speculative fiction writers have taken to considering the possibility of the converse; imagining a universe where Islamic countries are the center of finance, culture, military and political power, and the Christian West is a backwater, home to religious extremists and terrorists and not much else. All three of the books are interesting, and take different approaches to exploring the realm of possibility, but it’s ironic that Turtledove, a competent but not particularly innovative author, wrote what may be the most subversive of the books. Though these novels are about other worlds and universes, the assumptions built into the storytelling expose more about the biases and preconceptions, the limits of the author’s imagination, even when they are purposefully constructing an imaginary world. Through Darkest Europe has some serious problems as a book, including a very stupid point of divergence and the absence of an actual plot, but it’s the only one to portray a truly modern Muslim World.
Recently, I finished reading John Milton’s legendary poem Paradise Lost. First published in 1667, Paradise Lost tells the story of how Adam and Eve were lured by Satan into tasting the forbidden fruit, falling from grace, and allowing original sin into the world. I think we all know the story. Milton’s telling of it, however, is over a hundred pages long, and also includes the story of Satan’s own Fall; how he raised a mighty rebellion against the Lord Almighty and was cast from Heaven in punishment. It’s a truly amazing work of literature, and there’s a lot that can be discussed. William Blake famously said of the poem that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” It’s true that while the ostensible message of Paradise Lost is a call for unthinking obedience to Rightful Authority, Milton himself was a supporter of the Parliamentary Party during the English Civil War, and served as Secretary for Foreign Tongues for the government of the Commonwealth. In the text, Satan is by far the most interesting character, the only one with real motivations and internal struggles and passions. For myself, I was fascinated by the ways in which Paradise Lost turns the Jewish creation myth of Genesis into an explicitly Christian story, re-interpreting and re-contextualizing the ancient originals into the opening act of a new arc that culminates with the Redemption of Mankind. You could also talk about the poem on the level of just pure literature, examining the intricate stanzas and gorgeous writing.
We’re not going to do any of that. Instead we’re going to be counting down the top ten craziest, wildest, most bonkers moments in this poem that is weirder than I can possibly explain.
The Mortal Engines Quartet is a series that I have some very complicated feelings about. On one hand, it’s one of my favorites. It features some of the consistently best world-building I’ve ever seen, has a strong thematic core, and spends the first book introducing some wonderfully well-realized characters. It also spends the third and fourth book undoing most of that character work in favor of gratuitous and pointless self-destruction. I first read the series when I was in Middle School, and I remember being furious at how the back half of the series treated Hester Shaw, who is by far the best character in in the books. At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary or understanding to articulate my anger beyond “I don’t like this”, and when I reread the series last year I half-expected to discover that my youthful rage was the product a childish misunderstanding of storytelling. Reader, it was not. Or at least, I don’t think it was. I hope that I am not falling into the trap of the entitled fan, raving at the author for not following the path I had wanted. In this piece, I will try to justify my frustrations and disappointment with the series, and provide some broader context. The arc that Philip Reeve gives Hester Shaw in Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain is Bad for a number of reasons, some related to internal consistency and character development, and some because of the metatextual narrative it tells.
The plot of the Mortal Engines Quartet is very complicated, far too complicated to explain in full here. It takes place thousands of years in the future, after industrialized civilization was destroyed in the Sixty Minute War. Much of the world is now dominated by Traction Cities, massive self-propelled metropolises that secure resources by hunting down and “devouring” smaller towns and cities, a process known as “Municipal Darwinism”. Other parts of the world reject this brutal philosophy, and have formed an Anti-Traction League to oppose it. Just focusing on Hester Shaw’s plot arc, I will attempt to give a brief rundown. (SPOILERS FOR EVERYTHING!!!)
I think I first read Lord of the Rings in fifth grade, and I’ve loved it ever since. It’s one of those books that you can get something new out of every time you revisit, and despite the fact that it inspired a whole host of less-than-stellar imitations and derivatives that dominated fantasy for decades it remains startlingly great; deeper and more complex than the stale stereotypes it gave birth to would suggest. Famously, Tolkien was a linguist and a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature who wrote fantasy as much for an excuse to create his own language as for the story. Even when not lecturing the reader on the differences between Quenya and Sindarin, Lord of the Rings retains a scholarly air to it. There’s a self-conscious archaism, a deliberate element of throwback. The books are written in the style of the ancient epics Tolkien loved, and that comes through very well. Especially in the degree of metafiction included in the text.
The conceit that Tolkien retained (more or less) throughout his writings on Middle-Earth was that he was not an author, he was a translator. “Middle-Earth” was not another planet or dimension, it was a lost epoch of our history that he was researching. In some ways, this was fairly perfunctory. Maps of Middle-Earth, for example, cannot be made to match maps of Europe by any real means. But Tolkien never gave up on this concept, and metatextual elements are woven throughout his novels to a degree I’m not sure people fully appreciate.
Ok, let’s talk about how David Weber’s “Safehold Series” accidentally serves as a narrative about sexual fluidity and gender as a performance.
The “Safehold Series”, if you haven’t read it, is a pretty conventional, if complicated, series of Military Science Fiction books. The plot is quite complex, but basically, several hundred years in our future, the Terran Federation comes under attack from a genocidal race of aliens known as the “Gbaba”. With no hope of victory, humanity sends out a last colony fleet to ensure that at least a fragment of mankind survives. They settle on a planet called Safehold. To survive undetected, they initially plan to forgo advanced technology for a few decades, but something goes wrong, and power is seized by a totalitarian religion, the Church of God Awaiting. Dedicated to preserving the technological and social status quo, the Church’s leaders are so traumatized by humanity’s brush with extinction that they believe that only by isolation and infantilization can our species survive. Our story takes place 800 years later. A group of conspirators opposed to the Church’s rise placed the consciousness of a women named Nimue Alban inside a robot body (technically refereed to as a PICA–Personality Integrated Cybernetic Avatar) and had it hidden, programmed to wake up someday and lead the Revolution against the Church. Which is what she does, and is what the series is about.